The Future of the Union, part two: Inter-institutional relations in the UK Contents


Since 1997, the UK’s constitution has been subject to considerable change. Devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been a cornerstone of this constitutional change. Each of the devolved nations has accrued considerable new powers since becoming operational in the late 1990s, with devolution representing a dynamic process of continued adaptation and evolution.

In Wales, this process has seen the National Assembly for Wales, which was established as a body corporate with only secondary legislative powers, become a legislature which could soon have the power, pending the Wales Bill currently before Parliament, to vary income tax. In Scotland, the powers of the devolved institutions were increased by the Scotland Act 2012 and by the Scotland Act 2016. As a result, the Scottish Parliament will now have the ability to set the rates and bands of income tax on non-savings and non-dividend income and new powers in the field of welfare policy, including the ability to top-up reserved benefits such as Universal Credit and Tax Credits. The Corporation Tax (Northern Ireland) Act 2015 will enable the Northern Ireland Assembly to set its own rate of Corporation Tax from 2018 onwards.

The quality of inter-institutional relations in the UK has, however, lagged behind these developments. At the intergovernmental level, relations have long been criticised for the ineffectiveness of formal machinery such as the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) and the reliance, instead, on informal and, often, ad-hoc arrangements, driven more by short term political pressures than by a genuine desire for trust and understanding. At the inter-parliamentary level, relations have been even more limited and modest in scope. The regular quadrilateral meetings of the Speakers and Presiding Officers of the four UK legislatures have been arguably the closest the UK has come, post-devolution, to formal inter-parliamentary arrangements. While intra-Civil Service relations have been considered to be more effective, as a result of the continuation of the shared Civil Service in Great Britain, there have nonetheless been suggestions that the devolved administrations are still all too often treated as an afterthought by Whitehall.

This report examines how these three key pillars of inter-institutional relations have developed since devolution, and the changes that will be required so these relationships can become stronger and more effective in the future. This is all the more pressing as a result of the increasing number of concurrent policy areas, most notably in Scotland as a result of the Scotland Act 2016, where competency will be shared between the UK and a devolved Government. The outcome of the EU referendum also creates the need for more sustained and meaningful dialogue, and strengthened intergovernmental relations.

Work continues on a revised Memorandum of Understanding between the four UK administrations, while a more formal model of inter-parliamentary relations would face practical difficulties. So, this report has focused on making pragmatic and practical recommendations aimed at delivering a model of inter-institutional relations that is predicated on mutual respect and which promotes goodwill, trust and meaningful engagement.

6 December 2016